Doug Hughes and his gyrocopter: under the radar to make a political point

Florida postal worker Doug Hughes was arrested Wednesday when he landed his gyrocopter on the US Capitol lawn as a protest against government corruption tied to campaign contributions.

James Borchuck/The Tampa Bay Times/AP
Doug Hughes flies his gyrocopter near the Wauchula Municipal Airport in Wauchula, Fla., last month. Mr. Hughes was arrested when he flew his aircraft into restricted airspace Wednesday, landing near the US Capitol.

It was no secret that Florida postal worker Doug Hughes intended to fly his gyrocopter through restricted airspace in Washington – a federal offense that can result in arrest or even being shot down by nearby fighter jets on alert or ground-based missiles.

On his website, Mr. Hughes had announced his intention to make the illegal flight as a protest against government corruption connected to campaign contributions. He’d given long interviews to the Tampa Bay Times, his hometown newspaper, which posted updates on Facebook and Twitter. He’d even been interviewed twice last year by Secret Service agents – once when they knocked on his door at 1 a.m. and once at the post office where he works.

He pulled off his protest stunt Wednesday, flying his gyrocopter (at about 45 miles per hour) from an outlying airfield and through restricted airspace, landing on the US Capitol lawn, where he was promptly arrested. He made his first court appearance Thursday.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is investigating the man who has described himself as a combination of circus showman P.T. Barnum and American Revolution patriot Paul Revere. Some lawmakers – miffed that an aerial intruder might have been a greater threat – are promising to investigate, too.

"I am deeply concerned that someone has the ability to fly for over an hour through the most restricted airspace in our country, past the White House, and land on the lawn of the Capitol," Senate Homeland Security Committee chairman Ron Johnson (R) of Wisconsin said in a statement.

The Tampa Bay Times, which has reported the story in depth, notes a tragic episode in Hughes’s life that may have played a part in his decision to break a law to make a point about the corrupting influence of money in politics.

“His idea began to blossom 2-1/2 years ago, after his son, John Joseph Hughes, 24, committed suicide by driving his car head-on into another man, killing them both.... He was crushed by grief, and disappointed that his son had killed himself – and someone else – to make a stupid, worthless point,” the newspaper reported. “With mourning came a realization. The years Hughes spent thinking about and writing about mundane political issues were for naught if he didn't have a way to make a point. His political frustrations and grief merged. He doesn't condone what his son did, but it offered a lesson.”

"He paid far too high a price for an unimportant issue," Hughes told the newspaper. "But if you're willing to take a risk, the ultimate risk, to draw attention to something that does have significance, it's worth doing."

Hughes certainly got the attention he sought – and not just because of the video of his stunt, which played everywhere.

Under the waggish headline “What Hillary Clinton and the gyrocopter guy have in common,” The Washington Post pointed out that “According to a 2013 Gallup poll, 79 percent of Americans said they would vote for a law that would limit the amount federal candidates can raise from individuals and private groups.”

And yet polls also show that the gyrocopter guy’s effort may provide little impetus for campaign finance reform. The Pew Research Center finds “money in politics” down at 20th in a list of public-policy concerns.

“If you ask people if money in politics is a problem, they'll say yes, because why not?” writes the Post’s Hunter Schwarz. “But if you ask them what they think the biggest problems in the country are, it's not even close to the top.”

How will Hughes fare in the legal case against him? He wasn’t carrying any weapons. There was no bomb attached to his flying machine, described in some reports as a “contraption.” He did not resist arrest. He merely wanted to deliver letters to all 535 members of the House and Senate. (That’s $262.15 in 49-cent “Forever Stamps.”)

“I want to know all the facts before I reach an assessment of what can and should be done about gyrocopters in the future,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told reporters on Capitol Hill Thursday. “This individual apparently literally flew in under the radar. Literally.”

But Secretary Johnson added this:

“We are a democracy. You don’t have fences around our airspace. So we’ve got to find a right balance between living in a free and open society and security and the protection of federal buildings, important federal buildings, our national leaders,” he said. “You know, we want to stay one step ahead of every incident like this but then again, you don’t want to overreact, either.”

It’s unlikely that Hughes’s stamped letters made it to 535 lawmakers. Here was his main point:

"I'm demanding reform and declaring a voter's rebellion in a manner consistent with Jefferson's description of rights in the Declaration of Independence," he wrote. "As a member of Congress, you have three options. 1. You may pretend corruption does not exist. 2. You may pretend to oppose corruption while you sabotage reform. 3. You may actively participate in real reform."

In court Thursday, Hughes was charged with operating an unregistered aircraft and violating national defense airspace, which could result in a four-year prison term, Reuters reports.

Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson said Hughes is free to return to Florida but once there would be subject to home detention. He also is barred from operating any aircraft and must stay away from the US Capitol and White House areas in Washington, surrender his expired passport, and report once a week to a pretrial office in Tampa.

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